The November wind storm that cut power to Langley for more than 24 hours has some in the city wondering what more can be done in future electrical outages.
Langley City Hall was able to operate on a generator, but there is renewed interest in a larger, perhaps portable unit to power a warming center in town.
During the city council meeting Dec. 7, Sharon Emerson spoke about the city’s need for one during a designated public comment period. After the November storm, she said the Whidbey Telecom building and WiFire Coffee Bar in Freeland was open and bustling as people sought a hot meal and place to stay warm and access the Internet while power was out across South Whidbey for a few days in some areas. The thought of needing to leave Langley for such a service, and from a private business, upset her.
“Having to go to Freeland for that was pretty disappointing,” she said.
Emerson asked the council to consider budgeting for the purchase of a generator. She highlighted the council’s willingness to add more money to its economic development budget or for the Langley Main Street Association, which received another $5,000 from the city for contracted tourism support. Her request was quickly supported by another resident, Jonathan Moses.
Three council members broke the public comment protocol of merely accepting public comment and not addressing the comments then and there.
Councilwoman Robin Black, whose husband Tim Callison defeated Emerson in the mayoral election in November, called Emerson’s comparison “considerably off base.” Whidbey Telecom and WiFire are private businesses, she argued, and had power restored in less than 24 hours.
Councilwoman Rene Neff asked Emerson if she had asked some of the city’s churches if they were willing to serve or house the generators.
“I don’t think it’s my responsibility,” Emerson said.
Councilman Bruce Allen asked her if she knew about the emergency warming center at the Langley United Methodist Church. It is active and open any night the temperature drops below 36 degrees, but would have no way to warm the rooms during power outages. Langley United Methodist Church does not have a generator, which relegated the city’s designated warming center useless during the recent outage.
Later, after Emerson left the meeting, Black asked if the city could budget for a backup generator to use in an emergency shelter. The cost of a generator, Councilman Thomas Gill argued, should be borne by the entire community and not the city alone. Council Jim Sundberg said a generator was not necessary to the city.
“The loss of power is dramatic, but it’s not life threatening in most cases,” Sundberg said, asking city staff to research the number of days during a power outage in the past five years.
Walt Blackford, the former city administrator, was also at the meeting and said there was a 10-year history of trying to get one of the churches in Langley to agree to host a generator. They objected, he said, because of the cost of the generator, liability and the challenge of staffing on short notice during a potential emergency.
The city used to lease a generator from Puget Sound Energy. That ceased several years ago because the city’s energy needs outgrew the capacity of the generator and an upgraded one would have cost too much for the city. Blackford, who now serves as Puget Sound Energy’s community services manager for Whidbey Island, said other projects, such as some substations and aggressive vegetation management along the power lines, has reduced outages.
Thanks to a grant from the Puget Sound Energy Foundation, Island County Senior Services purchased a generator for its Bayview facility. As such, it is a designated emergency center but would still require traveling out of Langley.
The city spent months creating a detailed emergency preparedness plan. Each department supervisor has a binder outlining the steps and chain of command. The police chief and mayor participated in tabletop emergency exercises with South Whidbey Fire/EMS, county, Oak Harbor and Coupeville officials.
One of the slogans in the plan is 10 days, 10 ways. Essentially, it asks people to be ready for 10 days without power or water by stocking non-perishable food and bottled water.